On Slavery and Abolitionists: The History of Mary Prince

mp-book-204x300Autobiographical yet co-produced, this is as much an autobiography of the indomitable Mary Prince in all that is said, as the evangelical abolitionists who supported her bid for freedom in all that is left unsaid.

Mary Prince–born into slavery in Brackish Pond, Bermuda in 1788, she lived with her mother and siblings with the Williams family, helping take care of a little girl named Betsy who ‘used to lead me about by the hand, and call me her little nigger’ (57).

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No images survive of Mary Prince herself, but this is the photo that has often been used to illustrate her story.

But with the death of Mrs Williams the family split, as a young girl she was auctioned away from her family (though she maintained contact with them, even as her mother retreats into madness), and into a string of homes where she would be worked and starved and suspended naked from the ceiling and whipped. Every day there is a stream of abuse, of name-calling, pinching, slapping, beating that is said, and a subtext of sexual abuse that goes unsaid. She is almost killed by one master, falls ill and is essentially left to die by another. All of it is heartbreaking, horrific, rings with truth, yet few of her time wished to believe it.

My favourite sentence:

Mrs. Wood was very angry — she grew quite outrageous — she called me a black devil, and asked me who had put freedom into my head. ‘To be free is very sweet,’ I said… (86)

This is a graphic tale of oppression and a proud spirit pushing back against it as hard as she could, making her stands where possible, working always towards buying her freedom. It is also clearly stripped of all sexual content. Some of this is perforce put back in again, through the lawsuit of her last owners the Woods against Thomas Pringle, the abolitionist who had taken Mary Prince in as a servant and published her life history.

Her bad moral character becomes part of their case against her in defending their own good name after Mary Prince leaves them in London and petitions Parliament to force them to sell her her freedom. She testifies before the judge, and thus emerges in the frigid light of Victorian morality some of what was left unsaid by those who helped her share her life–but surely not all. It initiated a small level of discussion of slavery and morality (but of rape nothing is said of course), and the defense submitted a letter from Joseph Phillips of Antigua stating the following:

Of the immoral conduct ascribed to Molly by Mr. Wood, I can say nothing further than this — that I have heard she had at a former period (previous to her marriage) a connexion [sic] with a white person, a Capt.– which I have no doubt was broken off when she became seriously impressed with religion. But, at any rate, such connexions are so common, I might almost say universal, in our slave colonies, that except by the missionaries and a few serious persons, they are considered, if faults at all, so very venial as  scarcely to deserve the name of immorality. Mr. Wood knows this colonial estimate of such connexions as well as I do; and however false such an estimate must be allowed to be, especially when applied to their own conduct by persons of education, pretending to adhere to the pure Christian rule of morals… (letter from Mr Joseph Phillips of Antigua,1831,  p 111)

I found this somewhat jaw-dropping, I don’t know why. Perhaps its openness in comparison to the brutal public adherence to Victorian morals by everyone else, even though guilty of so much. There is a great deal in here — beyond what is censored from Mary’s account — showing the abolitionists in all their moral high-handedness and racism as well. Moira Ferguson (the editor) shares an anecdote from Peter Fryer in Staying Power:

When members and friends of the African and Asian society dined at a tavern in 1816, with Wilberforce in the chair, the token Africans and Asians invited to the gathering were separated from the other guests by a screen set across one end of the room.

And this is from the letter of Thomas Pringle in Mary’s defense:

Her chief faults, so far as we have discovered them, are, a somewhat violent and hasty temper, and a considerable share of natural pride and self-importance; but these defects have been but rarely and transiently manifested and have scarcely occasioned an hour’s uneasiness at any time in our household  (p. 115-116)

She had every right to be proud, had survived more and won more than Mr Pringle could have ever dreamed of. Yet he still relegated her to her ‘place’ as servant obedient to his will. It says more about his character than anything else I think, and his wife and her sister also, who themselves examined and testified to the terrible scarring of her body and still expected her to serve them.

His letter ends with a comparison with Brazil — to underline the moral contamination of slavery, the dehumanization of the owner wherever it is found in words more trustworthy because not those of a former slave:

I never walked through the streets of Rio, that some house did not present to me the semblance of a bridewell, where the moans and the cries of the sufferers, and the sounds of whips and scourges within, announced to me that corporal punishment was being inflicted. Whenever I remarked this to a friend, I was always answered that the the refractory nature of the slave rendered it necessary, and no house could properly be conducted unless it was practiced (Dr Walsh, ‘Notices of Brazil’ quoted on p 122)

This is a queer mix of Mary Prince’s own voice, her own recounting of horrors suffered and resistance waged, and a considered petition to the consciences of the British. It is unclear how much of that is shaped by the Pringles themselves and how much by Mary’s understanding of what they wanted. I imagine that was quite acute, who could better gauge the realities of her life and desires and their distance from what the Pringles and others would accept? I just hope she was able to find her own peace beyond their condescension and their judgments of all she had been through and all she had done not just to survive, but to break free.

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